In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes brilliantly about how the mind works and how we make decisions. He calls one of our most consistent errors “WYSIATI,” the assumption that “what you see is all there is.” In Janece Shaffer’s comedy-drama Brownie Points, currently at Lamb’s Players, five women learn to see beyond all they think there is.
When Allison, a white woman, heard her Girl Scout troop would go camping in Forsyth County, she gave it no thought: fresh air, mountains, and time away from Atlanta with her seven-year-old daughter. But when Deidre and Nicole heard the news, both African-American women thought twice. In 1912, a white mob went on a rampage so severe the county still can’t shake a reputation for brutality. Deidre and Nicole go to be with their daughters, but they go warily because “crazy happens here all the time.”
If the title sounds cutesie, so is the setup: five mothers accompany 14 Girl Scouts to a cabin in the woods. While the children remain offstage, working on merit badges (or watching videos, instead), the mothers have unplanned encounter groups and learn more about themselves. Also, the five women are a convenient cross-section: three white (one’s a Jew) and two black. From the start, however, Shaffer cuts through stereotypes. What you expect is not all there is. The black women, for example, are the wealthiest.
Lamb’s Players has a new policy: along with regulars, Lamb’s will cast more actors from outside the organization. Brownie Points benefits from the change. Karson St. John, Noel Award–winner, plays “insensitive” Allison, an organizer so compulsive she’s a human Control Tower. Noel Award–winner Monique Gaffney plays Deidre, a “high-maintenance,” in-demand Atlanta surgeon. When Allison makes a possibly racist mistake with the itinerary, St. John and Gaffney go toe-to-toe with such ferocity that resolution seems impossible.
Then the playwright slyly realigns the quintet. Different women discover things in common: two connect here, another two there, like building blocks, and they slowly repair at least some of the damage.
Lamb’s new policy hasn’t changed its approach to theater. Directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth — with an eye for goofy slapstick and surprisingly intense drama — Brownie Points is primarily an ensemble show and all contribute: Cynthia Gerber as Sue (sensible-seeming but ripped up inside), Kaja Amado Dunn as Nicole (knows the good, married to a pro athlete, and the “crazy”), and Erika Beth Phillips as Jamie (makes knee-jerk, PC earnestness both funny and a “teaching moment”).
Nathan Peirson (lighting) and Patrick Duffy (sound) build a convincing, reach-for-the-umbrella storm scene. And Michael McKeon has become one of San Diego’s most inventive scenic designers. Looming above his rustic cabin interior, pillars of fluted cloth represent tall, North Georgia pines.
Susan-Lori Parks’s artistic rap sheet is a mile long. She’s won all kinds of awards, including a Pulitzer for Topdog/Underdog. She’s been honored by the Council for the Arts and the NAACP, and in 2001 she earned a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. So why has San Diego seen so few of her plays?
Ion Theatre’s fierce, quirky, funny, and first-rate Topdog/Underdog raises that question anew. It helps that Moxie’s Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is guest-directing (she’s turning 2012 into a kind of victory tour, having already done wonders with Moxie’s Raisin in the Sun and the Rep’s In the Wake) and that Laurence Brown and Mark Christopher Lawrence have been cast as the African-American brothers Booth and Lincoln.
You heard right. Their father, who abandoned them a few years after their mother did, named them as a joke. The parents did give them a gift, though. Both have artistic hands. Booth, a thief, can pilfer like a god; Lincoln used to be “Link the Stink,” America’s greatest thrower of Three-Card Monte. Each longs for more respectable skills. Booth wants to surpass Lincoln with the cards, and Lincoln wants a “sit-down job with benefits.” His current one has him dressing as his namesake, whiteface and all, at an arcade, while “Booths” pay to assassinate him with a cap pistol.
The title refers to Fritz Perls’s theory (if you repress — “underdog” — something, it will find ways to reemerge) and to how the play unfolds: a repressed sibling rivalry resurfaces. Lincoln and Booth try to one-up, to “topdog” each other, first in subtle, then in violent ways. It’s tempting to compare Topdog with Sam Shepard’s battling brothers in True West. But while the latter ends with popping toasters, Topdog escalates to brothers at arms.
Lawrence and Brown excel with the play’s rhythms and basic “king of the mountain” drives. They flip-flop and spiral and lie so much, the truth hops about like a winning Monte card. They con us as well. From Ion’s intimate house seats, you’d swear they were spiraling upward. ■
Brownie Points, by Janece Shaffer
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth; cast: Kaja Amado Dunn, Monique Gaffney, Cynthia Gerber, Erika Beth Phillips, Karson St. John; scenic design, Michael McKeon; costumes, Keith Bonar; lighting, Nathan Peirson; sound, Patrick Duffy
Playing through May 27; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-437-0600
Topdog/Underdog, by Susan-Lori Parks
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast, Laurence Brown, Mark Christopher Lawrence; scenic design, Brian Redfern; costumes, Jeannie Galioto; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Nicholas Drashner
Playing through May 12; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m.